From a beach front taverna, I watched a small boat make its way from the shores of tiny village Plaka to the island of Spinalonga, imagining how it must have been for those residents who had to leave their families and make a new life on this rocky island.
As described in Victoria Hislop’s bestseller, The Island, until 1957, Spinalonga, situated in the Gulf of Elounda, Eastern Crete, was a leper colony. Today’s visitors who land on the pebble beach, walk in the same steps, through Dante’s Gate and the tunnel which leads to the street of tumbledown dwellings, the hospital, cafe and church. Food, medical supplies and pension payments were delivered by boat.
Those of us who are of pensionable age might recall the Lotus Eaters, a 1970s BBC
TV series written by Michael J. Bird, starring Ian Hendry and Wanda Ventham who ran a taverna just along the coast in Agios Nikolaos.
I had a coffee at the taverna, now called the Blue Lagoon, but viewers will remember
it as Shepherd’s Bar, named after owners and main characters, Eric and Ann Shepherd.
Female fans fell for Ian Hendry (who died in1984) and wanted to be like Wanda Ventham, now 81.
The series’ title was taken from the Lotus Eaters from Greek mythology, where those
who ate the fruit of the Lotus tree lost the desire to return home.
With a wonderful climate, cost of living 20 per cent less that of the UK, low crime
rate, wonderful scenery, beaches lapped by crystal turquoise waters and friendly Cretans, it’s not surprising that today’s Lotus Eaters include a large number of expats who chosen to retire on the largest of the Ionian islands.
Our base, four-star Sentido Blu hotel in Elounda, claims an enviable hillside position
and affords breathtaking views across the sea. It’s a popular choice for more mature visitors and an any time buggy service takes residents to and from their rooms, located on differing height levels in areas clothed with purple and pink bouganvillea, heady jasmine and trees which offer welcome shady spots. The main pool is for serious sun worshippers. From early morning, right into autumn, this terrace becomes baking hot, but we were delighted to discover a small swimming pool which serviced our clutch of rooms. There’s also a private beach and beach bar.
Staff are helpful and friendly. There’s a semi-shaded terrace restaurant and an inside option where buffet meals provide plenty of choice. Evening entertainment includes a disco, a Greek night, guitarist, bingo, quiz night and a popular trio of long-legged dancers.
If you’re staying in this area, a trip to see the ancient Palace of Knossos, located five kilometres south of Heraklion and the capital of Minoan Crete, is a must. The residence of the legendary King Minos was also linked to the half-man, half-bull Minotaur. The beast roamed the labyrinth and feasted on youths and maidens which
were brought him to be sacrificed. The first palace dates back to 1900 BC. British Archaeologist, Arthur Evans, excavated the site in 1900 AD and restored large parts of the palace, where visitors can now wander the maze of workrooms,
living spaces, chambers, a throne room and storerooms close to a central square and marvel at the pottery, pillars, columns, frescoes and murals. A constant stream of tourists flock to this amazing phenomenon, so it’s advisable to go early in the day, iff possible, also to avoid the intense heat in this open site. Take a bottle of water with you and consider wearing a hat.
In and around Elounda and Agios Nikolaos, travel by bus is cheap. However, buses run only at two hour intervals. We paid just two euros to go to Plaka in Mirabello Bay. Residents in this former fishing community, welcome visitors and there are several beach front tavernas, mainly specialising in fish dishes, some souvenir shops, plus a few hotels and apartments for rent.
A smiling widow, dressed in traditional black, brought a jug of wine to a couple on a lone wooden table perched on a wooden slat at the water’s edge – very Shirley Valentine.
From our hotel, it was an easy, pleasant, 20-minute sea front walk to much-loved
tourist resort, Elounda, which is not too frantic but provides plenty of facilities.
Owners are proud of their beach side cafes, restaurants and tavernas, decking them
tiers of multi-hued flowers and potted plants. Elounda’s harbour is a lovely natural lagoon fringed by rugged peninsulas.
Walk from here to Olous, the ancient town which also claims TV fame with the filming
of Who Pays the Ferryman, a second BBC series, written by Michae J Bird and
shown in the late 1970s. The Ferryman taverna, renowned for its great food, is one of a clutch of bars, cafes and restaurants which boast terraces with views over the sea to Spinalonga.
From our hotel, it was only a four euro, 20-minute bus ride to bustling Agios Nikolaos. A cruise ship was squeezed into the small harbour alongside a ferry and several local tourist boats.
This vibrant resort attracts a multi-national stream of visitors with its classy boutiques, upmarket coffee shops, traditional tavernas, restaurants, fish markets and hotels. At night, the buzz continues as the harbour and adjoining deep lagoon sparkle with lights reflected from the clutch of see and be seen contemporary bars and hot spots.
As we relaxed in Agios Nikolaos with a glass of wine, one lunchtime, watching the passagiata from a pavement cafe, a strong wind suddenly swept across the harbour and sea front. Parasol umbrellas were lowered, hastily, glasses, plates and bottles gathered up and taken inside and, only just in time, as the heavens opened to release a downpour of heavy rain with bounced off the ground.
For good measure, Zeus, king of the Greek gods, threw in few random flashes of lightning and clashes of thunder. But after around half an hour, the rain stopped, order was restored and the sun pushed its way through the scowling skies which soon became blue again.